I think I’m on to Lionel Shriver’s secret: timing, research – and sharp story-telling doesn’t hurt either.
She taps into the single fear that is uppermost in the nation’s mind and crafts a story that drags that fear into an extreme reality. Afraid your kid is going to go postal? Shriver’s got a book for that. Worried that your financial resources will be depleted by a bout of cancer? She’s got a novel for that too.
Right now the middle classes are scared that the ongoing financial crisis will render them destitute by the time they hit retirement age, and right on cue the Shriver literary machine pops out a book about a moderately wealthy family that finds itself increasingly less wealthy as the US economy crashes and the encumbent government decides (unwisely) to default on its international debts.
Over the space of a decade, the United States is reduced to a third-world country populated by people who are simply not prepared for life in a third-world country. Well, some are; those that never had anything are now predators, preying on the once-wealthy who find the loss of everything beyond their ability to cope with.
The characters are straight from the author’s stock persona warehouse: middle class, successful, wealthy, and ever-so-slightly cleverer than everyone else on the planet; the kind of people you’d want this to happen to, just to see how they deal with it.
Like most of Shriver’s work, this is more about the characters: the actual collapse of the United States is an interesting backdrop to the struggles that the Mandibles face as they find themselves in difficulties, then poor, then ultimately homeless. The characterisations are superb, but if you’ve read any of the author’s other works then there’s no one here you haven’t met before. Still, the prose is as strong as ever: the book flows beautifully, and is a surprisingly easy read, even if the characters occasionally spend pages discussing economic theory. The prose and a real sense of suspense makes the books something very rare: a literary page turner that’s almost as good as Station Eleven. The Mandibles is not a pure science-fiction novel, but I think it’s close enough that most sci-fi buffs would really enjoy it.
Definitely recommended: nine out of ten.